China, under the rule of Xi Jinping, is the nation that represents the greatest threat to the international status quo that has existed since the end of the Cold War. Although there are areas where cooperation between China and the United States may be both desirable and highly necessary, like dealing with climate change, such instances are far and few between. Instead, the seemingly inevitable collision of the two powers is sure to determine the fate of the 21st century.
From Carter’s advocacy for Sino-American relations in the late 1970s to George Bush’s deputy secretary of state urging China to be a “responsible stakeholder” of global affairs in the early 2000s, the United States has spent decades pursuing strategic engagement with China. Such efforts have been led by prominent intellectuals including Janos Kornai, a renowned professor of economics at Harvard University, who thought that economic incentives would induce China to reform and open up as promised by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. Despite Western leadershoping for Chinese politics to liberalize as a result of economic, technological and cultural exchanges, the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre has made it clear that they are likely mistaken. Permanent normal trade relations, as pushed by President Clinton in his2000 China Trade Bill speech, have created economic and trade dependencies of the United States on the Chinese economy which contribute to the current dichotomy of China challenging America’s global hegemony. In the words of Kornaihimself, who puts the situation poetically, “We not only watched China’s transformation with approval but actively contributed to these changes. We are the modern version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein … The resurrected creature became a murderous monster.”
Instead, it has become increasingly difficult to imagine a world in the next few decades where China will be willing to recognize, permit and promote the fundamentals of egalitarian societies rather than pursue a revisionist and revanchist agenda. It continues to make attempts to undermine and bully small, fragile democracies abroad with debt-trap diplomacy like we see in Uganda. It shows limited initiatives to counter rogue states which forego adherence to basic humanitarian norms like North Korea. It suppresses people-powered movements in its own backyard of Hong Kong, and it is in the midst of establishing a network of unconventional allies which threaten to challenge the stability of the United States’ own alliances. Additionally, due to the United States’ significant economic reliance on its relationship with China, prominent citizens now oftencensor their own criticisms of China to please China’s government, all to maintain now-necessary financial flows to their franchises and businesses. The beginning of a global backslide into authoritarianism has only supported China’s rise as an increasingly credible challenge to liberal American hegemony as it prepares to strike while the iron is hot.
Recent indications have confirmed that a confrontation is almost inevitable no matter what the U.S. may do, given China’s increasing restrictions on the dissemination of information both within and beyond its borders. The resulting decreased economic and political predictability suggests that the frequency of asymmetric, “grey zone” warfare is likely to increase soon. Through the Great Firewall, China attempts to execute its objectives by playing on social disorder within its competitor. In simple terms, concerted, widespread cyberattacks and attacks based on economic mechanisms against the U.S. and its allies may become far more prevalent and dangerous in the following months.
Based on the direct challenge that Xi’s China poses to both the United States itself and the ability of global democracy to survive, the United States, as the country best positioned to prevent the rise of a malignant global superpower, must act. To do so, it must first recognize the factors which have led us here, ranging from demography and economy to internal CCP dynamics to geopolitical needs to secure Chinese security, as well as policies enacted by the United States itself which failed to counteract the situation’s degradation to this point. Then, the United States must take steps to limit the potential of open conflict without ceding the race for the 21st century to China. Ultimately, by discussing these issues through this column, there will be a greater appreciation for the strategic goals that the U.S. should be aiming for in all theaters where China is involved, and exactly why and how the United States should act in countering China.